Galvarino: Legendary Mapuche Warrior That Replaced His Hands With Knifes

War brings out the absolute worst in men, but sometimes a hero like Mapuche warrior Galvarino, can emerge from the battlefield and inspire stories for years to come.

War cries can be heard from the outskirts of the Spanish encampment as 3,000 Mapuche warriors flood into the settlement. Cannons are fired into the oncoming forces as the Spanish try to mount a defense.

They look on in horror as out of the cannon smoke Galvarino emerges. The Spaniards had encountered this Mapuche warrior before. However, this time, Galvarino has two knives lashed to the stumps of his arms where his hands used to be. He wears a look of hatred on his face, determined to make the Spaniards pay for what they did to him and his people.

Galvarino first encountered the Spanish conquistadors in 1557 at the beginning of the Arauco War. This was a campaign the Spaniards embarked on to conquer the lands of Chile. Three groups controlled the area called the Picunche, Hilliche, and Mapuche, to which Galvarino belonged to. All three of these cultures were distinct and only came together as a federation for the purpose of defending their land from Spanish conquest.


The first clash between the Spanish and Galvarino happened in central Chile near the Bio Bio River. It was here that a bloody battle was fought. At this first battle, Galvarino still had both of his hands, but the Mapuche force did not stand a chance against the steel armor and weaponry of the Spaniards. They fought valiantly to protect their homeland, and the Mapuche forces fought fiercely to repel attack after attack from the Spanish cavalry. Eventually, they succumbed to the mounted soldiers and the more advanced military equipment of the Spanish conquistadors.

Captured and tortured many of the Mapuche, aswell as Galvarino

Hundreds of Mapuche were killed. Around 150 warriors survived the battle, but were captured by the Spanish and Galvarino was among them. They were tied together and marched back to the Spanish settlement for a trial.

Upon reaching the encampment, the Spanish quickly passed judgment on the Mapuche warriors as there was no defense offered. The punishment that was decided upon was something out of a horror movie.

Governor Garcia Hurtado de Mendoza, by National Museum of Archaeology, Anthropology, and History of Peru, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Governor Garcia Hurtado de Mendoza who was in charge of the Spanish forces ordered that all of the Mapuche soldiers should have their right hand and nose cut off. However, they were not to be killed. The Spanish had a plan. It was to intimidate the opposing force by mutilating their warriors, and sending them back to their people as a warning.

Hurtado de Mendoza also decided that the leaders of the Mapuche forces, such as Galvarino, were too dangerous even to be left with one hand. So, he ordered that the commanders have both of their hands cut off. Again, the message to the Mapuche was that they either submit to Spanish rule or die.

Cutting both Galvarino’s hands for precaution

Galvarino with hands cut of, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Legend has it that when Galvarino was brought up to have his left hand cut off he showed no signs of fear or remorse. Galvarino was fiercely defiant and would not give the Spanish the satisfaction of seeing him in pain. The hatchet came down on his left hand, severing it from his arm. Galvarino remained unflinching. He promptly raised up his right arm and placed it on the cutting block. He watched as the hatchet fell again, cutting off his second hand.


At this point, the Spaniards in attendance must have felt a deep unease from the determination and resilience of Galvarino during his torture. To make it clear he was not afraid of death Galvarino asked his torturers to kill him. However, the Spaniards declined his request.

They still believed that sending Galvarino back to his people with no hands it would serve as a deterrent for future battles, however, it had the reverse effect instead. The Spaniards probably would have been better off if they had just followed Galvarino’s request and killed him. By leaving him alive the Spaniards had unleashed a powerful motivator back into the ranks of the Mapuche forces.

It was the dismemberment of Galvarino’s hands and what he would do next, which elevated the Mapuche warrior to legendary status. Without any hands and cauterized stumps at the end of each of his arms, Galvarino and the other Mapuches that had been captured returned to their people. When they reached their home the result was not fear as the Spanish had hoped for, but anger and defiance. Galvarino and the mutilated Mapuche warriors became a rallying cause for the resistance forces.


Plan of the Spaniards backfired

Caupolicán, by José Toribio Medina, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

They met with one of the most influential generals of the Mapuche, Caupolicán. Galvarino himself urged the general to retaliate as soon as possible, and to never stop fighting the Spanish forces who were slaughtering their people and taking their land. Upon witnessing what had happened to Galvarino and his men, Caupolicán started planning how the Mapuche would strike back.

Caupolicán was so inspired by the resolve and dedication of Galvarino that he made him one of his commanders. Galvarino would even lead the next attack on the Spanish. It was clear that Galvarino was a fierce warrior and feared nothing. But he could not be the commander of a force, and go into battle, if he had no hands to fight with. So, Galvarino fixed the problem by turning himself into a killing machine.

Galvarino took two knives and lashed one onto each of his wrists, making sure the ropes were tight to keep the knives in place as he slashed his way through the enemy. Although there is no record of how long the knives were, it is clear that the weapons were very sharp, and would be deadly in close quarters combat.


It is important to remember that the knives were fastened to freshly cauterized wounds. The fastening process must have been incredibly excruciating for Galvarino, yet his desire for revenge outweighed any pain he may have felt. At this point, you have to wonder if he could even feel pain at all.

When the Spanish took away his hands, they believed he would be helpless. Most likely, they thought they would never have to worry about him again… but they couldn’t have been more wrong. If anything, Galvarino was now even more deadly than when the Spanish had first encountered him. The conquistadors’ plan of scaring the Mapuche into submission had clearly backfired.

The Mapuche attack back with Galvarino on the helm

On November 30, 1557—about a month after Galvarino and his force had been captured and mutilated by the Spanish—the Mapuche launched their next attack. It became known as the Battle of Millarapue. Galvarino commanded his own force and was in the heat of battle from the beginning.


The Mapuche warriors numbered around 3,000, while the Spanish only consisted of 1,500 soldiers. The plan was to sneak up and ambush the Spanish, catching them off guard.

Galvarino and his warriors crept through the dense forest, making sure to stay out of sight. They watched from the treeline as the Spaniards relaxed in their encampment. Several sets of patrols were walking around the camp, but they would be swiftly taken care of if all went according to plan.

The key was to attack quickly and enter the encampment before the Spanish could fire their devastating cannons and rally their cavalry. Unfortunately for Galvarino and the rest of the Mapuche, things did not go as planned.


The attack commenced too early, and not all of the Mapuche forces were in place when the first warriors engaged in battle. But once the battle had started there was no turning back. Galvarino and his force charged towards the encampment. However, the Spaniards mobilized quickly.

As Galvarino slashed at the Spanish soldiers with his knife-hands, the rest of the Spanish forces used their superior armor and weapons to tactfully retreat into the encampment where the cannons were being primed and aimed.

Sheer will from Mapuche warriors, unfortunately did not stop the Spaniards


As the Mapuche warriors pushed the Spanish back, it seemed as if they had the upper hand. Then the booming of cannon fire echoed across the battlefield. The smell of spent gunpowder and screams of soldiers being torn apart by the cannonballs filled the air. The Spanish had turned the tide of the battle. Galvarino would not give up and continued pushing forward with his Mapuche warriors, but the Spanish cavalry now had the opening they needed.


The riders shot through the hole created in the Mapuche force and surrounded them. The Mapuche tried their best to fend off the Spaniards, but they were no match for heavily armored mounted cavalry. Galvarino stabbed at the enemy, trying to protect his men and kill as many of the conquistadors as he could before he was overwhelmed. When the dust of the battle had settled, almost all of the 3,000 Mapuche had been killed. The few hundred that remained were taken as prisoners, including Galvarino for the second time.

None of the Spanish soldiers were killed during the battle thanks to their armor and long range crossbows. The Spanish force was able to decimate the Mapuche while only losing horses and spent ammunition. The Spanish cannons, cavalry, and advanced weaponry allowed them to repel and slaughter the Mapuche even though they were vastly outnumbered.

The Spanish kept the remaining Mapuche under close guard to ensure no one escaped, and there were no other surprise attacks. They took inventory of what had been destroyed and decided that Galvarino and the other Mapuche were too dangerous to be left alive. So instead of mutilating the Mapuche warriors as before, the Spaniards sentenced them all to death by hanging.


Spaniard tried to save Galvarino

Alonso de Ercilla, by El Greco, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Although the Spaniards saw Galvarino as an enemy, some admired his resolve and what he had done to his body to fight again. Some accounts reported that a Spanish aide named Alonso de Ercilla tried to intervene in the execution of Galvarino.

He begged Galvarino to give up fighting for the losing side and join the ranks of the conquistadors. Galvarino responded that he would rather die. He even presented the Spanish with a warning that only his death would keep him from tearing them to pieces, and if he couldn’t use his knives, he would rip them apart with his teeth.

It was clear that Galvarino was a fierce warrior and that nothing would stop him from trying to kill the Spanish. It was decided that he would be put to death with the rest of the Mapuche who had been captured.


However, unlike the rest of his men, Galvarino was said to have died in a more gruesome manner.

Some accounts claimed he did in fact hang, but others mention him being thrown to Governor Garcia Hurtado de Mendoza’s dogs, who then tore him apart. Other stories state that Galvarino killed himself before he could be hung. It was his final act of defiance against the Spanish before meeting his death. It would have been in line with his character to rob the Spaniards of the pleasure of killing him themselves.

Galvarino’s death became a legend, that motivated

Even after death, Galvarino plagued the Spanish. His story and legend became a rallying cry and unifying force for the Mapuche, and other cultures in the area to resist Spanish colonization. In fact, the Arauco War lasted for nearly 300 years. The Mapuche people refused to give in to the Spanish. The legend of Galvarino served as inspiration for their fierceness and tenacity when resisting the Spanish.


Galvarino was a man who did not fear death. He was a warrior who after losing both of his hands, he didn’t give up, he just became more deadly. He had both hands chopped off, lashed a knife to each of his cauterized wrists, and a month later, led his warriors into battle. Even after death, Galvarino motivated the Mapuche to fight for their homeland and resist the onslaught of Spanish colonization.

Featured image: Galvarino, by D. Alonso de Ercilla y Zúñiga, published by: J. Gaspar Editor 1884, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons